Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
For 2019 Christmas ideas, 12 of the year's most interesting Lodi grown wines
Another year, another slate of Lodi-grown wines that are indubitable "Lodi." In what sense?
In the same sense as when the character played by Joe Pesci in the current movie The Irishman tells Al Pacino (playing Jimmy Hoffa), "It's what it is." Commercial wines, especially those produced in the U.S., haven't always been "what it is." For instance, 50 years ago California wine producers led by pioneers like Robert Mondavi used to regard the red wines of Bordeaux and the white wines of Burgundy to be the ultimate in wine quality. Therefore, they worked as hard as possible to produce wines that are so similar to Bordeaux reds and Burgundian whites that many wine lovers could hardly tell them apart. That was a point. Like wearing clothes stamped with other people's brands, and making the mistake of being what you're not.
The most recent movement that you can find in Lodi is the result of local vintners finally growing comfortable with the taste of wines that taste primarily like they are grown in Lodi rather than, say, a wine grown in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, France or Italy, New Zealand or South Africa. Not all of them are doing this, of course. You still find Lodi producers who, for instance, try their best to duplicate the taste of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Sonoma County Zinfandel. Why not, when these are still the standard bearers?
But once you start to lean towards "what it is," you are less concerned with outside standards and become more focused on capturing a character that, in a lot of ways, can only be found in a place like Lodi. That might mean a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel as deep and flavorful as any, but still a little rounder, plumper, and more fruit-forward than what you might find elsewhere, reflecting the long, fog-less, steadily sunlit growing season of the Lodi winegrowing region, with its gentle diurnal temperature shifts and, in many places, fertile yet porous sandy loam going down as deep as 50 to 100 feet. Sandy loams and Delta breezes are unlike any other soils or breezes found on the entire West Coast. Joe Pesci would be satisfied.
This is what we mean by "the year's most interesting wines." The following suggestions may not, in your book (or someone else's), be the very "best" wines. "Best" is always in the eye (or palate) of the beholder, and is less of our concern. For this list, we're more interested in well-made wines that epitomize the latest in terms of what Lodi - as a winegrowing region with its own natural attributes, unlike any other region in the world - has to offer.
2018 Oak Farm Vineyards, Estate Grown Lodi Fiano ($26) - Fiano is a white wine grape native to Italy's Campania region, from where the Oak Farm owners (the Panella family) originated. It is tart and zingy, much like the Fianos of Italy. Otherwise, grown in the high vigor, moon dusty sandy loam of the Oak Farm estate, it absolutely sings with its own flowery, honeyed fragrance suggesting toasted nuts like pecan (or is it hazelnut?), with the grape's natural lemon/lime zestiness tinged by a silken textured viscosity. Incidentally, we just learned that Oak Farm's Fiano was chosen "Best of Show White" at Dan Berger's International Wine Competition, taking place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds earlier this month. Not that we're bragging, but even finicky wine judges seem to appreciate this unique "taste of Lodi."
2018 Acquiesce Winery, Lodi Ingénue ($32) - 2019 will go down as the year when this white-wines-only specialty estate came out with its first-ever blend of this type, consisting of Grenache blanc (35%) and the rarely seen Clairette Blanche (35%), Bourboulenc (20%), and Piquepoul (10%). The wine is as exhilarating as it is unique, from its exuberantly high-toned nose suggesting minerals, fresh sliced fennel, and lemon/citrus to its medium-full, crisply defined body dispensing these mineral and citrus qualities in a dense and meaty palate feel. While this wine fulfills Acquiesce founder/winemaker Sue Tipton's ambition from the first - to grow grapes and produce wines similar to the white wines of France's Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation - it is as perfectly bright a "Lodi" style of white wine as you can find.
2018 Harney Lane Winery, Scottsdale Vineyard Lodi Chardonnay ($28) - Now how do the words "unique" and "Lodi" even come up with Chardonnay? The region's combination of sandy yet vigorous soils, cool nights (summer temperatures just below the mid-50°s), and the bright sun beaming down from the first second of dawn to the last second of dusk has always been an ideal environment for this ubiquitous grape. At long last, a local producer has exercised just the right amount of judiciousness in decision-making to produce what Harney Lane co-owner Jorja Lerner describes as “a cleaner, crisper wine, more about the fruit than the influence of oak.” Tasting it makes you think, this is what Lodi Chardonnay tastes like pristinely bright, nearly unadorned, sun-kissed fruit, a citrusy crispness around the edges, a sleek and airy, negligee-like silkiness in the middle, yet some things that go a little deeper, like the subtle mix of lemon and briny minerality in the nose and the lip-smacking green apple tartness in the finish.
2018 McCay Cellars, Lodi Rosé of Grenache ($24) - The mild yet sun-soaked Mediterranean climate of Lodi is so much like the South of France, where more dry rosé is produced than anywhere in the world, is it any wonder that Lodi has recently exploded with the type round, gentle, sleek and svelte styles of pink wines that consumers can't seem to get enough of? This bottling epitomizes what's coming out of the region - mildly tart, neither light nor heavy in the body (13% alcohol), smooth and plump as a healthy baby's bottom, and utterly compelling in its bright, lush fruit sensations suggesting the scent of cherry, the zing of raspberry, and the freshness of watermelon.
2016 LangeTwins Family, River Ranch Vineyard Jahant-Lodi Montepulciano ($28) - It is difficult to over-emphasize the significance of this winery's progression towards multiple single-vineyard bottlings of varietals, clearly signaling a commitment to capturing the qualities of grapes within the context of vineyards and appellations as opposed to "varietal character" or even a distinctive brand style. In other words, unique varietals are very "Lodi." Stylistically, this varietal red exudes the dark cherry aroma of the Montepulciano grape, which is given a sense of polished elegance through 22 months of aging entirely in "neutral" oak (barrels previously used for other wines, no longer imparting the strong wood tannin or flavor typical of "new" oak). These puristic fruit qualities come across as ripe, electric with natural acidity (yet not sharp or edgy), and well contained within a smooth, supple feeling, medium body (13% alcohol). Above all, this bottling shows the huge potential of Italian grapes in this Mediterranean region. Keep an eye on this family's winery's courageous, new, industry-leading program of vineyard-designate wines!
2016 Stonum Vineyards, VII Lodi Estate Zinfandel ($35) – Very quietly, this tiny boutique has been crafting its own style of estate-grown Zinfandel in a way that can only be described as iconic. For some wine lovers, this may mean "weird" or "stubborn," but many others will love this Alpine Rd. winery's lean, slinky, yet bright and zesty style of Zinfandel might not have been very popular ten years ago when most Zinfandel lovers were still looking for bigger, fatter, riper, and “jammier” styles. Despite the 2016 Stonum's somewhat lanky feel, its fruit profile is invitingly floral and red/blueberry focused; and as such, very true to the style of Zinfandel grown on Lodi’s “east side” (where soils are more like beach sands than vineyard loams) that more and more Zinfandel lovers are appreciating, especially for their multi-food-friendliness, from grilled salmon or tuna to cacciatore or coq au vin style chicken.
2016 Heritage Oak Winery, Estate Petite ($18) - There is a much larger, family-owned Lodi winery that produces a red wine blending the rambunctious Petite Sirah with a smaller amount of dark, sharply edgy Petit Verdot, and it sells like hotcakes. There are no circus elephants on the label of Heritage Oak's "Petite" bottling, and this is a 50/50 blend of the two black-skinned grapes. Says Heritage Oak owner/winemaker/grower Tom Hoffman, “People like a nice, dark red wine like Petite Sirah, but I like it better when there’s a synergy and balance, so I use more Petit Verdot." If anything, the purple-colored yet less overtly fruited, moderately weighted Petit Verdot in Hoffman's iteration puts more of a kibosh on Petite Sirah’s habit of overpowering any wine, or any palate, with copious amounts of alcohol, tannin, and ultra-ripe fruitiness. Hence, the sweetly concentrated nose of Heritage Oak's Petite – the violet qualities of Petit Verdot singing above the Petite Sirah’s blueberry liqueur-like intensity – and the dense, meaty, sinewy yet fleshy layering on the palate, with the scented fruit penetrating the grippy feel the way Raymond Chandler once described a dime store novel blonde ("... a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window").
2017 Markus Wine Company, Lodi Toura ($39) - Swiss-born owner/winemaker Markus Niggli is all about blends; be it an airy-light white wine called Nativo (from Kerner, Riesling, and Bacchus grapes) to artfully meditative reds like Zeitlos (Syrah/Petite Sirah) or Domo (ancient vine Carignan with Petite Sirah). Toura is Niggli's "biggest" red wine yet, mostly because of its plethora of the Portuguese grape, Touriga Nacional (34%). In this wine, even Cabernet Sauvignon (33%) and Petite Sirah (33%) play second fiddle to the muscular tannin and floral, somewhat exotic perfume (scents suggesting star anise and bergamot orange) of the Touriga, yet each component plays a role - the Cabernet lending a suave, dense, layered richness, and the Petite Sirah a distinctly blueberry/peppercorn spice - in compelling the senses to regale in the sheer, exhilarating audacity of the whole, uniquely "Lodi" shebang.
2017 Bokisch Vineyards, Sheldon Hills Vineyard Sloughhouse-Lodi Monastrell ($27) - Monastrell is a Spanish synonym of Mourvèdre, a grape of Spanish as well as Southern French lineage that producers in several parts of the state are just starting to get a grip on. It used to be that California vintners would turn this varietal into a dark, dense, and weighty red because of the cultivar's generous tannin profile; but because of the grape's low-key fruit, it would often end up a blocky wine of somewhat monotone (and often charmless) character. In this, Bokisch's second vintage coming off a ranch at the north-east corner of Lodi (growing on a red clay hillside inundated with river rock and cobble), the varietal is plenty dark, dense, and meaty, but also explosive and upbeat in fruit suggesting drippy red berries (black cherry, cassis, a touch of Chinese salty/dried plum) laced with whiffs of tobacco. The tannin level is not so much grippy as dark-chocolaty in the way it adds meat to the bone (or roux to the sauce), combining with the fruit to give a saturated yet bright, buoyant feel. We are all just beginning to pinpoint the character and potential of Mourvèdre grown in this distant corner of the state; and whatever it is, it's already looking great!
PRIE Winery, Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Lodi Dornfelder ($27) - Whodathunk that a grape-like Dornfelder - originally a black-skinned crossing developed in 1955 to produce fairly easy-drinking red wines in Germany (despite the country's reputation for the world's greatest Riesling whites, Germans love red wine, too) - would turn into an almost completely different animal grown in the sandy soils alongside Lodi's winding Mokelumne River? There is a velvet roundness to this red wine giving it a little bit of ease; otherwise, it is more of an inky black-purplish wine, a color serving as a harbinger of deep, concentrated aromas, and flavors suggesting blackberry jam, roasted coffee spices, dense tannins, lip-smacking acidity, and a filling yet surprisingly svelte feel and light footedness (its body defined by a miraculously restrained 12.7% alcohol), supported by a refreshing modicum of oak.
2016 Anaya Vineyards, Potrero Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Nebbiolo ($48) - It has always been presumptuous of any California winegrower to make a wine from this grape native to Italy’s Piedmont region; but that's what they used to say about California Pinot noir in respect to France's mystical Burgundy region. As it were, this bottling comes from 3-year-old vines; and consequently, it is filled out with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon (future vintages will be 100% Nebbiolo). The promising signs are a bright black cherry Nebbiolo quality tingling the nostrils with the lightest of feathery touches, subtle enough for scents of rose petal, blackcurrant, chestnut and tiny sprigs of mint to wave in and out of the sensory threshold. On the palate, the wine is zesty with notable acidity and steel-girded tannin, finishing with a touch of herbiness and smoky espresso-like notes reflecting the time in French oak. Time, of course, will also tell if Nebbiolo has found a second home in the red clay slopes of Clements Hills, but there is plenty to sink your teeth into right now.
2016 Peltier Winery, Schatz Family Reserve Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) - We believe this wine opens up a new chapter for Lodi-grown Cabernet Sauvignon because it is grown in classic Cabernet Sauvignon terroir: shallow/rocky/gravelly clay slopes, rather than the deep, fine sandy loam of Lodi's historic Mokelumne River appellation. Although the Schatz family's Coyote Creek Vineyard, located in the Clements Hills area close to Dog Town, is still young (planted in 2013), this inaugural reserve vintage is showing all the ingredients of classic Cabernet; particularly, dense tannin, a compact feel, and long, velvet texturing. On a sensory level, it is also wonderfully "Lodi," with its tightly focused blueberry/boysenberry nose underscored by a cassis-like Cabernet concentration, enhanced by a suave, seamlessly knit feel. 100% French oak quality is smartly restrained to show off the distinctions.